Cervical spine injuries come in a variety of types. (Cervical spine is a term that refers to your neck.) Neck injuries range from mild to severe; they may come about from an accident or long term wear and tear. Below are the most common cervical spine injuries defined and described.
Before you go through the list, here's something to keep in mind: Damage to one anatomical part in your neck often means damage to others. For example, whiplash may result in one or several diagnoses including muscle strain, ligament sprain and/or disc injury. This is because the parts of your neck are connected. Bones, joints, soft tissue and nerves work together to hold up and move your head.
Neck Injuries Affecting Soft Tissue
Most of the time, damage from a neck injury is limited to soft tissue. But nearly every type of cervical spine injury, severe or mild, affects muscles. Below are the most common neck injuries that may have an effect on muscles, tendons, and/or ligaments. As mentioned above, some of these will occur in conjunction with more serious injury types.
A "crick" or "kink" is a term many people use to describe the pain they wake up with after sleeping with their neck in an awkward position. Neck cricks may come from working at the computer for long hours, or sudden movements of the neck.
At-home therapies can take care of a crick in the neck most of the time, but if the pain lasts longer than a week or disrupts your usual activities, get it checked by a doctor.
Strain is an injury to muscles that move the spine. Although they sometimes affect the neck, most strains occur in the low back. Bending over at the waist to lift a heavy object is a common cause of muscle strain. Symptoms include muscle spasm, reduced flexibility and pain. To treat a neck or back strain, most medical experts recommend modifying your activity to accommodate your pain and taking an over-the-counter pain medication. If the pain lasts longer than a week, or if it disrupts your usual activities, see a doctor.
Sprains are injuries to ligaments. (Ligaments are strong bands of connective tissue that hold bones together.) Neck sprains are often caused by falls or sudden twists that overload or overstretch the joint. Another cause is repeated stress to the joint. Symptoms include swelling, reduced flexibility and pain. Sprains can be mild, moderate or severe. If you suspect someone in your environment has a severe neck injury (of any kind), you should immobilize their spine and call 911 immediately. For minor and moderate sprains, rest and ice the area, take an anti-inflammatory, and get it checked by a doctor.
Neck Injuries that may Affect Nerves and/or the Spinal Cord
Certain neck injuries may also do damage to the nervous system by irritating nerve roots or affecting the spinal cord. Others may pinch or stretch a nerve. Generally, neck injuries that affect the nervous system are more complicated to diagnose, treat and cope with than soft tissue trauma or mild to moderate joint injury. For one thing, diagnosing nerve pain is not always straightforward. And injury to the spinal cord often results in life long disability, paralysis or even death. Below are common neck injuries that may include damage to one or more parts of the nervous system.
Whiplash is a set of symptoms following an injury in which the head is thrown first into hyperextension and then quickly forward. It's most often due to car accidents, but may be caused by sports injuries, falls or trauma. Like a crick, WAD is not a medical diagnosis. It's an event that may result in neck strain or sprain. Whiplash may also damage joints or discs, which in turn may irritate nerve roots or possibly the spinal cord.
Depending on the injury, symptoms can include pain, weakness/numbness/tingling down the arm, stiffness, dizziness or disturbed sleep. Symptoms may delayed a day or two following the injury. Research has not yet identified the most appropriate treatments for WAD, but medication and wearing a collar are common.
Herniated disc occurs when the soft substance on the inside of the disc (nucleus pulposis) is pushed out. Should this substance land on a nerve root, which it often does, you'll likely feel pain and have symptoms such as weakness, numbness and/or pins and needles down your arm.
Tears in the tough outer fibers of the disc may lead to a herniation. These tears may be brought on by either repeated or a sudden, forceful stress to the joint. For example, lifting a heavy load with a twisted spine may cause a disc to herniate.
Treatment generally starts with medication and physical therapy, but may proceed to surgery as needed.
Stingers and Burners
Stingers and burners (named for the way they feel) are temporary injuries to the nerve root or brachial plexus. They occur most often in football players (especially tacklers) and other contact sport athletes.
Stingers and burners may be caused either by an abrupt tilt of the head or when the head and shoulder are forced in opposite directions at the same time.
Symptoms include burning, stinging, numbness/weakness, or an electrical sensation down one arm. You may feel a warm sensation along with the other symptoms.
If a stinger or burner is severe or lasts longer than a few minutes, see a doctor. If you are an athlete with stenosis, your risk is higher and your doctor may suggest that you retire from your sport to avoid a catastrophic neck injury.
A neck fracture is a break in a cervical bone. It may be caused by trauma, a fall or degenerative changes in the spine. The angle of force at impact often determines the type and severity of the break.
Football players who block with their head are at high risk for cervical fractures. Elderly people with osteoporosis are also at risk, due to fragile bones.
The most serious neck fractures are generally accompanied by a disclocation (see below).
Treatment depends on a lot of things including your age, other medical conditions and extent of damage to your spine. If a fracture destabilizes your neck, you may need to wear a halo brace. Prevention is the best treatment strategy.
Dislocation occurs when a neck bone moves out its normal position, creating spinal instability. Either an injury or degenerative changes disrupt the ligaments that hold the vertebra in place, causing it to separate from the bone below.
When brought on by trauma, a dislocation may be accompanied by fracture.
In the most severe dislocation, the bone is fully displaced forward (called jumping), and it locks in this position. The ligaments rupture completely. Dislocations may damage the spinal cord and/or require surgery.
Less severe forms occur when the bone does not move all the way out, or when only one side fully displaces. Mild dislocations may go back in place on their own, and the soft tissue treated by wearing a collar.
Spinal Cord Injury
A spinal cord injury occurs when a fracture, dislocation or other neck injury damages the spinal cord. If the spinal cord is damaged at the 3rd cervical vertebra or above, the person may die or need a respirator to live.
The timeliness of emergency care and the type of medical treatment given immediately after the injury are especially critical to survival and subsequent quality of life. If someone in your environment has a traumatic incident, you should assume they have a serious or even life threatening neck injury and follow Red Cross guidelines.